Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Serious Hip-hop for Serious Times

On the night of April 28th, the Roots took the stage on The Late Show with David Letterman dressed almost entirely in black. They wore t-shirts and pins denouncing the recent verdict in the Sean Bell case. It was an act of protest that eerily pointed out how few things have really changed in the "post-civil rights" era. The next day, the Roots' tenth album Rising Down was released on the sixteenth anniversary of the Rodney King verdict.

Rising Down does indeed fit the chaotic and frustrating times we live in. It is sonically dense, often dark and atmospheric, emotionally fraught and confrontational. And the lyrics? Well, the subject matter isn't exactly light. On the contrary, it is hard-hitting, unflinching, and serious as a heart attack. The group waste no time setting the album's tone on the opening title-track, employing steady-flowing drums and a simmering guitar-line as MC Black Thought, along with guests Mos Def and Styles P, take on the wealth gap, urban racism and global warming:

"Between the greenhouse gases and earth spinning off its axis
Got Mother Nature doing back flips, the natural disasters
Its like 80 degrees in Alaska, you in trouble if you not an Onassis
It ain't hard to tell that the conditions is drastic
Just turn on the telly check for the news flashin'"

The Roots have long represented the leading edge of "conscious" hip-hop. In fact, Rising Down seems to be almost a gathering of some of hip-hop's most political artists, from Common and Saigon to Mos Def and Talib Kweli. According to drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson Rising Down is "probably our most political album to date dealing with addiction, nihilism, hypocritical double standards in the prison system and overall life in Philadelphia."

While the group's hometown of Philly plays a central role on many tracks, the sheer scope of issues taken on means these stories could be about almost anywhere in America and even the world at-large. The track "Criminal" puts the very term on its head, telling a story of being forced into a world of violence by powers bigger than yourself. In a recent interview, Black Thought described the song's message: ''It's about being persecuted and having no other alternative." ''You could also see it from the angle of the Rockefeller [anti-drug] laws,'' adds ?uestlove, ''certain groups of people get persecuted and others get away with it.''

The same repression and violence surrounds this album's much more unsettling stories. The subjects of "The Singer" are, in order, an American school shooter, African child soldier and suicide bomber in Iraq. The track is at some points disturbing, but its utter frankness and willingness to get inside the heads of the alienated and oppressed make it hard to disagree with.

Moments like these have lead some in the music press to label Rising Down a downer. Most reviews understandably have focused on the album's harsh soundscapes and brutal honesty. Rolling Stone criticized Black Thought's lyrics as being "so terminally stern that even his jokes sound like harangues." Then again, the Roots have never really given much creedence to what outside forces have to say about them, including the music industry. In rap, a genre constantly painted into a corner, this is not easy. "[T]he new minstrel image of black people is in vogue now," says Black Thought, "that's the image that's being sold to you. It's really hard to hold on to your dignity and not resort to shucking and jiving to sell records.'' This is taken up on "I Will Not Apologize," a proudly defiant track that refuses to back down from one's artistic principles. The track is also one of the album's most eclectic and catchy songs, relying heavily on contributions from Talib Kweli and samples from Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti.

What most reviews miss is that by unabashedly portraying life as it is, Rising Down raises the possibility of something better. Positioned close to the end of the album, with its buzzy synthesizers and snare-rolls, "The Show" (featuring Common and Dice Raw) is positively militant in its sense that another world isn't just possible but necessary:

"They got hopes and plans of gettin' rid of me
I'll hit 'em like Ethiopia hit up Italy
Swift as the bullet that killed King and Kennedy
You know the battle is on for infinity"

For the Roots to maintain this kind of uncompromising outlook, even strengthen it, in this kind of political climate had undoubtedly been a challenge. In an interview with Vanity Fair, ?uestlove recently ruminated on the demoralization that many politically conscious artists (especially of color) have taken through the hard-knocks of the Bush aministration: "It’s just a numbing period for artists left-of-center. Why did it take Erykah [Badu] eight years to do a follow-up record? Why haven’t you heard from [Rage Against the Machine’s] Zack de la Rocha? D’Angelo? Lauryn Hill? Bilal? All the left-of-center, politically charged minority artists--Dave Chappelle included--like, what happened?"

The Roots, like many others in the hip-hop community, have thrown their lot in with the Obama camp recently. How much faith the group have in the Illinois senator is unclear, but listening to the lyrics one gets the feeling they would like to see something a lot more fundamental than Obama is capable of. Despite all the talk of this album being a po-faced lecture to a world that doesn't get it, Rising Down delivers a lot more truth and hope than you possibly could from anything on the campaign trail.

1 comment:

Kid Che said...

Thanks for posting this insightful look into Rising Down. The album is exactly what hip hop, and society at large, needs right now.

I hate to be cynical, but I won't be at all surprised when Lil Wayne (the epitome of the new minstrel standard ?uestlove talks about) outsells this album 10fold.